“I wanted to turn something I had come to resent into something positive, creative”: An interview with Saskia McCracken — Tobias Ryan

In Zero Hours (out next week with Broken Sleep Books), writer and editor Saskia McCracken shines a light on the experiences of those in precarious work. A collection of short vignettes presented in a variety of styles, McCracken focuses on the small details and brief instances through which the indignities, absurdities and moments of fleeting connection that punctuate the lives of contract workers are felt. Rich in pathos, and tinged with cutting black humour, these are stories which, above all, abound in empathy for those forced into or kept in difficult circumstances by the demands of the contemporary labour market: people whose experiences, despite their ubiquity, are often underrepresented. Responding to my questions over email, McCracken spoke about how the book came together, her process and influences, and the potential stories such as those contained in Zero Hours have for affecting change.

I’m curious about how the collection came together: at what point in the process did individual pieces begin to coalesce into a broader work, or were they written with the idea of a collection in mind?

I started writing these stories without a collection in mind. I spent a decade working in hospitality – bars, cafes, restaurants etc. – and wrote quite a few of these pieces during quiet periods at work, often on order pads and menus. There were a lot of characters in the industry and a lot of strange incidents that inspired these stories, that compelled me to write. A couple of stories go as far back as 2013, 2014. A few began as poems. Over the years some were published in a few zines and magazines (Spam Zine, Adjacent Pineapple, etc). Then towards the end of that decade, which had started off really fun and turned sour, I was job hunting, doing agency work (admin, reception, hospitality), and the stories started to coalesce into something bigger.

I wanted to turn something I had come to resent into something positive, creative. I had plenty of time to develop the collection while on reception and started writing with the theme of zero hours in mind, thinking about how that kind of work demands a certain form – short fiction, sketches, scenes. As I outline in ‘Scenes’, zero hours work is too fleeting and fragmentary to make up a novel, and too prosaic for poetry. I realised I’d been writing in this way because of the way zero-hour work structures time, interaction, narrative. I ended up with a manuscript that was too long to be a pamphlet and too short to submit to most presses as a full-length book. It was that in-between form and length that was typical of zero hours life – it didn’t quite fit or work in the way it was expected to. Luckily Broken Sleep Books were open to experimental writing and took it on – and here we are.     

There is an interesting play with names throughout Zero Hours, with the same names being applied to clearly different characters (e.g. Duncan), while at other times they are used to hint at a kind of continuity (with Massimo and Davey, for example). Again, I’m curious about your intent here: what was the concept behind the naming of characters throughout the collection?

The characters names changed during the course of writing the collection. Many of the stories were originally set in London, where I’m from, but I wanted Glasgow, where I’ve lived now for seven years, to be a character in the book. Partly because it’s such a distinctive, fascinating place, and partly to give a sense of continuity and to act as a centre to the text (while the characters are decentred, peripheral). Several character names started out English and became Scottish (such as Duncan).

There’s so much going on in Glasgow culturally and a lot more grass-roots organising than I ever saw in London, all built on radical histories: Red Clydeside, women’s suffrage, and the Rent Strikes in the 1900s, and more recently the Save Our Pool campaign and Kenmure Street. I’m not romanticising – you see a lot of the grim side of the place in Zero Hours, but it’s a city that is proud of it’s working people. This creates an interesting tension for me with the gig economy – will we ever think of zero hours workers in the way we think about the people involved in the industrial revolution? I doubt it, but it is a revolution in terms of how we work and how we think about class isn’t it? 

To return to the stories, in agency work you often encounter the same people without ever really getting to know them, so I wanted to loosely connect the characters in that way, by having their stories overlap occasionally. But other characters – like Massimo and Davey, kept coming back to my imagination and demanding I tell more of their stories. I didn’t want them to be stereotypes – sleazy, petty criminal. So I listened and I wrote more. And hopefully they’re more rounded and complex because of that.

Is your engagement with these characters over now or do you think you might come back to them in future?

I wrote these stories and worked with these characters when I was really in the thick of it with this kind of work. It’s been a few years since I quit my last zero hours contract job and submitted the manuscript. A lot has changed since then, including my job (though the third sector is quite precarious too!), my outlook, and the issues that really engage me. These characters feel like they belong to another chapter of my life and I’m enjoying getting stuck into the next one, and the new characters that are cropping up as I write. So I don’t think I’ll revisit these characters, but I’m excited to see which ones come along next!

As for longer forms, I aways thought I’d like to write a novel, if only because it seems more impressive and more likely to get published. Most big publishers and fiction readers want novels. Most small, indie publishers want poetry – it’s cheaper to print, quicker to read, and poetry is often a bit more glamourous and experimental than prose. Short stories are hard to place.

In truth I much prefer working with short forms. There’s something of the precision demanded by the constraints of shorter stories that is both challenging and satisfying. There’s also room to experiment in ways that would be unsustainable in a longer form. I like how short fiction can suggest a whole novel’s worth of story beneath the surface in a few pages, and leaves so much to the reader’s imagination. The short story is to the novel what the poem is to the book in verse – everything suggested in a moment, meaning layered tightly in.  

What – if any – research did you do for the collection? The specific iniquities in some of the situations felt as though they may have come from real life experiences, reported or perhaps lived through.

Most of the research I did was on food – my brother is a chef, but it’s one of the few roles depicted in the collection that I’ve not done myself. So I wanted to make sure I got the details of the food right and ran some of the dishes and recipes by people who actually make them, and they were able to set me right on a few things. ‘The Sting’ was inspired by the Byron Hamburgers immigration raid in 2016, when staff were lured to work under the pretence of a staff meeting and around 20 of them were deported. I had a friend working for them at the time. It was horrible. As for the other stories, many of them were inspired by real experiences (‘Virtual Reception,’ ‘Direct Mareting,’ ‘Function’ and several others), some I witnessed (‘Disciplinary’) and others range between pure fiction and fiction inspired by real people, places, incidents, or in one case, a folk song. I should add that even the scenes drawing on lived experience are fictionalised and this is not an auto-biography at all. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I used to do that too!’ about purely fictional scenes (e.g. involving ironing, I don’t even own an iron), so it’s worth remembering that this is fiction.    

Would you say there is a particular political aim to these pieces? More broadly, what are your feelings on literature’s ability to argue for, promote or illustrate societal concerns?

I hope that people reading the stories find them engaging, that some stories will resonate with people, and that those who aren’t familiar with the gig economy find them eye opening. Literature can certainly illustrate societal concerns and change perspectives, and plenty of nonfiction has changed the world (Frederick Douglass, Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Marx etc.) but most fiction does not bring about tangible, immediate change – there are far more obvious ways of doing that. My day job is in the third sector now, where I’ve met a lot of people doing amazing work that directly positively impacts communities. That said, I have been contacted by the Zero Hours Justice campaign group about this book so if they or anybody else find it useful – great!

Having experienced the kind of precarious work depicted in the collection, several of the stories struck a nerve. When writing (and particularly in relation to the previous question) what kind of reader to you imagine? One familiar with the issues the collection addresses, or one without that background?

The kind of reader I imagine for this book has done precarious work – partly because I don’t know anyone of my generation who hasn’t. Almost everyone I know has done it – friends, family, colleagues – it’s hard to imagine someone who hasn’t. As I said above, I hope it resonates with people and they find it compelling. That said, I hope that it will appeal to other readers and that they might enjoy it and learn something new about the gig economy. If people treat (and tip) zero hours workers better after reading this, that’d be amazing.

Again, leaning more than a little on personal experiences, I often found the collection tense and rather stressful to read; there is a sense of inescapability and a kind of hopelessness, which only rarely seems to lift (thinking particularly of ‘National Favourite’), to what extent would you consider these horror stories?

I’m both sorry to hear that and pleased that you got really immersed in that way! Life on zero-hour contracts is tense and stressful so I’m glad that came across. I never thought of them as horror stories, but several people who have read it have used that phrase, so I guess they can be! Most of the horror stories I’ve read have been gothic ones, and I’m too scared to watch horror films, so I’m less familiar with the genre than the people who see that element in my work. If anything, I hope that some of the stories have a sense of absurd humour, but then, people can’t always tell when I’m joking.

It’s a truism to say that literary culture is dominated by the middle and more affluent classes, but who are the working-class writers, or those taking on the stories of the precarious working class as you have, that have inspired you, that you are currently reading or would recommend?

Definitely, though perhaps less so in Scotland than the rest of the UK. A lot of writers don’t explicitly say whether they are working-class or not and I don’t want to make assumptions, so I’ll stick with recommendations for writing that deals with these issues and themes. Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature (Dostoyevsky Wannabe), edited by Isabel Waidner, was a really exciting read when I was working on the collection, because it pushes at the boundaries of what experimental fiction can be whilst centring working-class writing.

I enjoy a lot of nonfiction, and favourites include Rose Lu’s All Who Live on Islands (Te Herenga Waka University Press), which explores the lives of working-class migrants from China in New Zealand, and Lola Olufemi’s Experiments in Imagining Otherwise (Hajar Press), a radical activist non/manifesto. In terms of poetry, nicky melville’s Decade of Cu ts: 2010-2020 (Blue Diode Press) brilliantly takes on austerity, precarity and the benefit system, and I’ll be launching Zero Hours with Maria Sledmere, whose Visions & Feed (Haverthorn Press) also deals with issues of hospitality, work, and gender, so I’m looking forward to reading that when it’s out.

I had read indiscriminately growing up – everything from Zola and Wuthering Heights to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and Sweet Valley High. Creative writing courses, and then my tutors at university, introduced me to loads of amazing writers and got me thinking critically about literature. I started reading discriminately – no more fantasy. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was influential because you could read it as a novel or a short story collection. Doris Lessing’s ‘Through the Tunnel’, James Joyce, Lydia Davis and Lorrie Moore’s short fiction was all very exciting. Virginia Woolf blurred generic boundaries in every way and with such beautiful language – I was obsessed for years. But I have returned to fantasy – particularly Ursula K Le Guin. It’s great to read a form I have no intention of writing in – truly escapist. I also read a lot more poetry and nonfiction than fiction these days. My favourite books at the moment are Garden Physic by Sylvia Legris, Significant Other by Isabel Galleymore (both poetry), and anything (particularly nonfiction) by Nina Mingya Powles and Kathleen Jamie.      

Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother is referenced a couple of times in the collection. Can you talk a bit about the play’s significance to you and the impact it had on the writing of these stories.

Yes, there’s a series of dialogues in Zero Hours that follow a bar tender who is reading this play. Thematically ‘Night Mother is quite a hopeless, claustrophobic play, so that resonates through the stories and is a rather bleak intertext, particularly if you know how it ends. More importantly, I love theatre and enjoy dialogue as a form. As I read this play, though it’s for the stage, I realised that I could create stories, or scenes, that were dialogues for the page. ‘Night Mother works really well without stage directions (though it does of course have them) on the strength of the lines alone. I wanted to experiment with that. These dialogue scenes have become a recurring form in my short fiction because they allow me to tell stories in a different way. I enjoy the constraint of trying to convey everything through what the characters do and don’t say. So the play has been very formally inspiring for me.

You also work as an editor, how does that affect the way you write?

As an editor at Osmosis Press I get to work with exciting, experimental work that blurs formal and generic boundaries, so that’s really inspiring. The role involves paring things down a bit for clarity, and to ensure the writing is as strong as possible. It’s meant that my own writing is constantly being trimmed for the same reasons. Every time I revisit my stories I try to read them as an editor, simplifying them and cutting any extraneous words (adverbs, adjectives and exclamation marks are the first to go). I want the stories to be concentrated, distilled.

Do you tend to begin with an image, a character, a line?

I begin in all kinds of ways depending on the story, but often it starts with a place to centre the characters and an opening line that pops in my head and grabs me. Then I go where the characters take me!

I’ve always written stories – first little comic strips for my younger brothers, then a fantasy epic with a friend when I was a teenager. I tried a few short courses for adults to help me decide what to do at university (everything from German to the Argentine tango), took Martina Evans’s creative writing course at City Lit about 13 years ago, and loved it (where I first read ‘Night Mother). That’s when I started writing short fiction. Then when I was at university I found that there was a thriving experimental poetry scene and lots of small poetry presses and magazines that published people I knew, and nothing of the like for fiction. I decided if I wanted to get published I’d have to write poetry too. I’ve since realised it’s best to write in the form I most enjoy so I’ve returned to prose, though I still write a little poetry sometimes. 

Occasionally a story starts as a poem or vice versa, and my recent obsession with seaweed has emerged in different forms. I revise a lot, but partly because my style has changed over the years and the stories were written in some cases quite far apart. So I edit the ones I wrote back then to be consistent with how I like my writing to be now (particularly when it comes to dialogue that doesn’t sound convincing anymore). If there are alternate versions of unpublished stories they have mostly been over-written – the downside of Word. But several stories have been published so you can see old versions that way!

You’ve written a wide range of different types of texts, what can readers look forward to next?

I’m currently working on a short story collection provisionally titled Alligator Love Song. It’s fairly open at the moment but some of the stories so far explore female relationships, beastly encounters, and it has a few of those dialogue scenes I was talking about. I’ve also got a couple of forthcoming poetry pamphlets, Cyanotypes (Dancing Girl Press) and Common Name (Osmosis Press) both of which deal with gender, naming practices (scientific and unofficial), natural history and seaweed. Finally, my big writing project of the last few years has been a nonfiction essay collection, Other Blooms, on natural history and obscure women, animals and plants, which considers how our focus on charismatic megafauna is part of the problem when it comes to climate justice. It’s time we turned our attention to uncharismatic minor fauna, to minor characters and creatures.

Read Saskia’s story ‘Direct Marketing’ here.

Zero Hours is out now with Broken Sleep Books. You can order a copy here.

Saskia McCracken is a writer and editor based in Glasgow. She is on the editorial board of Osmosis Press. Her poetry and fiction pamphlets include Imperative Utopia (-algia press 2021), The King of Birds (Hickathrift Press), Cyanotypes (Dancing Girl Press), and Common Name (Osmosis Press). Twitter: @SaskiadeRM

Tobias Ryan is an English teacher and translator. He lives in Paris. Twitter: @tobiasvryan